I have heard a lot about how the Northern Irish Assembly wants to be more transparent and open to the public. It is after all a fundamental principle of a well-functioning democracy that those who we elect can be held to account. I regularly make trips up to Stormont as a member of the public and arrived today to listen in to one of the Stormont Committees.
The occasionally over officious security guard at the front gate, as per usual asked me where I was going and for what reason, despite turning a blind eye to the jogger and the dog-walker merrily coming in alongside me - still i suppose they have a job to do. It is not the security guards that are my bug bear.
Before arriving I had of course to carefully navigate my way through the at times incomprehensible Northern Ireland Assembly website to find an item of interest in a Stormont Committee. Then I made the journey from the centre of Belfast and after successfuly negotiating the guard at the gate, and a few of his colleagues later on, I am left sitting in the hugely impressive Great Hall of Parliament Buildings waiting for the call to go up and view the Committee's public session. I notice a few others are also waiting just as patiently, some of whom I fear may have come from farther afield than the centre of town.
A security guard says the Committee is ready, I can go up to the room. But "hold on", he says, as the others also rise from their benches, "there are only three spaces available". A public session of a Stormont Committee and only three members of the public can attend?? He mutters something about it being small room! I stare back at him blankly
When I, as one of the lucky early arrivals, get into the room I find myself surrounded by civil servants and officials taking up the vital seats in the public gallery. Civil servants and officials who have only had to come down a couple of flights of stairs from their Stormont offices, whilst Jo Public, who could have made the trip from Enniskillen for all they know, misses out. Half of them don't even appear to be taking much notice of what is going on, and they certainly aren't taking feverish notes, as one of my fellow 'visitor' attendees is.
Three more seats are lying empty, with a yellow sheet left on them with the words 'reserved for press' clearly stated! Not one member of the press enters for the whole session.
And to top it all, the item of business that interested me, that was identified on the Northern Ireland Assembly's website as one of only three items on the agenda, turned out to be just a 'take note' item! The Clerk could have saved me a trip, by stating this very fact on the agenda, but no. So having sat through two hours Members swept over it in a matter of seconds.
Come on NI Assembly! Think of who is paying your wages